When Hollywood wants blockbuster story worlds like Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Men in Black to generate successful sequels and to stretch across all kinds of media, they call on Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment. Gomez can pull apart a script or novel or game design and assess exactly what makes it “mythically great” (or not so hot), and then offer a way to fix or build upon its world so that it can be extended as different types of content.
Some people call this transmedia (but you don’t have to), and now, Gomez is bringing his skills to big brands. Most noted for his contribution to Coca-Cola’s multi-year Happiness Factory campaign, he’s also consulted on such brands as Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, Reebok, and Spartan Race.
We’re extremely happy to have him as a panelist at the Future of Content workshop at the Samsung Accelerator on July 28th and that he took the time to speak with us one-on-one about the tech changes we’ll see over the next five years and how the balance of power is slowly, but surely, moving back towards the consumer.
Catrinel: Content is what all communication is composed of, it’s a type of experience. What is content today and what is it becoming?
Jeff: Content is the sum total of the exchange between storyteller and audience. In the digital age, the audience is back in the picture. They’ve been out of the game since the advent of mass media and the start of the age of broadcast. For the past century or two, a very few privileged provided content to the masses.
Now the masses are growing daily and exponentially in their capability to communicate right back to the storyteller, just the way they did with their shaman while sitting around a campfire. This change is a big shock to content providers because it happened so suddenly. We’ve forgotten how to include audience response intrinsically and dynamically in our stories. We’ve got to reteach this to ourselves, and that means reexamining our technological capabilities and taking new approaches to data.
CB: Technology is inextricably tied to the end experience. What is the end experience? Will it remain on our screens or will it be wired directly into our amygdalae? How will technology mediate the end experience and influence the way we measure that experience?
JG: The end experience is rooted in the technology’s ability to connect me powerfully with content I find appealing. It doesn’t matter whether we are listening to the radio, or strapping on a VR headset. The mistake I see happening all too often is the sacrifice of intimacy and accessibility in the name of technological development.
I still find myself bound and baffled by Twitter, and am not surprised by the difficulty it is experiencing at growth. Facebook, on the other hand, finds its sweet spot in warmth and connection. Zuckerberg rightly prioritizes updates from your family and friends over brands and content aggregator posts. The integration of “live” into the platform may go down as revolutionary.
CB: Data is for everything. For creating, distributing, and measuring content. How will data evolve in ways that can better allow us to find the perfect audience?
JG: If content is our conversation, and technology is the means through which we are having that conversation, then data is how we anticipate and interpret our audience’s feedback. All the way back through history, if we are excited about meeting a person (or a certain kind of person) we will ask questions about them. Data is like our friends in the know. It doesn’t tell us everything, but it can give us big hints, allowing us to fill in the blanks or make adjustments to ourselves that will maximize the potential of the meeting.
What’s funny is that so many of Starlight Runner’s clients want to use data after the fact, so they will be better prepared the second time out. But without having that conversation before the first product is even made, how can you best the odds that there will even be a second time? Movie studios are coming to us and asking, why are so many big sequels bombing this year? Our response is not just, “Did you ask your audience whether they were even interested in a sequel?” It is really, “What do you know about your audience that will allow you to build a first movie with fantastic sequel potential? What is it about the story world that is capable of generating highly entertaining stories that your audience will clamor for?”
Gleaning the data, or designing a set of questions that will elicit this kind of data is the answer.
CB: What are the major technological changes we’re going to see in the next five years regarding content creation, consumption, and delivery?
JG: Advertisers and marketers will do best for themselves to keep an eye on Silicon Valley and the tech space. The big advances will be consumer focused. The development I’ve seen that’s most exciting is the in technology that helps people connect, communicate, and emotionally engage with one another in more powerful ways. We’re going to see breakthroughs in language translation, we’re going to see apps that help you speak more effectively, you’ll be able to light yourself professionally, alter your appearance more subtly, compose better music, and post-produce your video with incredible ease.
There’s a reason why Paramount Studios sued a bunch of fans for making an amateur Star Trek film. The fan trailer looked better than anything the studio had come up with for television—ever! Soon everyone is going to have this kind of power right in their mobile phones, and as a result, big brands and major corporations are going to have to engage with consumers on a far more even playing field.
CB: How are those changes going to affect the way we sell ads? Tell stories? Distribute and consume content? Measure performance?
JG: The balance of power is sliding steadily toward the consumer. This is both in terms of each individual’s ability to influence dozens or hundreds or thousands of others and in terms of their ability to quickly absorb truths, half-truths, and lies and rapidly distribute these to everyone they know. So this is not just about upping our storytelling game. We can’t just lie better. We are actually going to have to use our data to improve our products. We are actually going to have to treat our audience not just like human beings, but like friends.
To that end, we have to go where our friends live, so we’re going to need to know their platform and social media of choice. The distributors of the awesome movie “Drive” came to me and asked, if this movie is so great, why did it bomb? I asked them, where did you advertise the movie? They told me, well, most of the marketing money was spent on newspapers, of course. I shook my head and told them, the vast majority of young adults who would have fallen in love with “Drive” and proselytized the film have never even purchased a newspaper. At Starlight Runner we called this “having a Kodak moment.” Too many companies, large and small, are ignoring the seismic changes occurring around us.
CB: What are we going to see in regards to personalization? How will brands and marketers deal with privacy concerns?
JG: A lot of the corporate clients we talk to bombard their customers (or potential customers) with email or snail mail, and tell us that complaints and unsubscribes are rising steadily, but they don’t know why. This has always been business as usual for them. When we examined the data, it didn’t give us anything, except “too much.” So we designed a targeted solicitation of micronarratives from both subscribed and unsubscribed customers. Micronarratives are candid little stories that are submitted in writing or exchanged in intimate and carefully designed one-on-one interviews. Hugely helpful, even out of small samples.
In just one sentence one of these micronarratives told us everything we needed to know: “You don’t know me.” The customer related that when she gets an email from another retailer, it says, “Hi Sherry, we noticed from previous purchases that you like scented candles, and this weekend we’re having a 50% off sale on these brands of candles. Come in and enjoy!” They “know” (read: care about) her, and stagger their communications so that she’s contacted when something relevant or adjacent to her interests happens. She welcomes that and will never unsubscribe.
CB: Storytelling became an advertising buzzword – why is that? Does it mean anything? Does every brand have to tell a story?
JG: In the late 1990s, TiVo and specialized online message boards drew me to the conclusion that TV and print advertising were going to become endangered species. But storytelling is never going away. Story is so primal, it essentially started as a tool to keep prehistoric human beings alive. So it’s hardwired into our brains. Story—as opposed to goofy jokes and strange images—stays with us, because it keys into our most innate human desires: survival, curiosity, intimacy. By definition story is meaningful.
For the past century or so, big brands had it easy. All you needed to do was hold up the brand to this giant mirror that is television and the masses saw it, bought it or didn’t buy it. When you had that kind of reach, your story could be pretty simple, it could change year in and out, or it could be all over the place. The brand’s story didn’t even need to have much to do with the story of the corporation that built the brand. Now that mirror has shattered into dozens of pieces, and the audience has fragmented with it. So this is what Starlight Runner does for our clients:
We have to recalibrate the story as a whole, because the essence of the story now has to be scrutinized by and stand up to all those different fragments of the mirror. Like a great movie, you’ve got to have something important and aspirational to say if you’re going to engage so many people with your story. But you also need the story to be reflected differently in each piece of the mirror. If you don’t, you’re just repeating yourself and annoying the consumer, or you just seem outdated. People actually use their devices for different reasons, and if you’re not in tune with that, they now have the capability of cutting you out of their lives. So you have to be genuinely proud of your product, be excited to share it, and listen carefully to your customer.
If a commercial is a short story, then the brand narrative is a grand epic. This is a story that spreads back to the beginning of the brand and forward to its end. It’s a story that includes the voices of its corporate leadership and all employees of the company, but also of consumers, and even of critics and haters. Without understanding and tooling your brand narrative, you will always be guessing at what you need to communicate next, you will never be fully prepared for criticism, and your relationships with yourself and the consumer will never be entirely fulfilling.
To exemplify, look at what Jonathan Mildenhall, CMO of Airbnb, is doing with that brand. He sees the brand as a thrilling story, not just of disruption but of discovery and connection. He takes criticism of the brand and flips it right on its head, turning consumer hesitation into opportunity. He tells us that his brand can help us to “fit in everywhere.” Who doesn’t want to do that? Jonathan doesn’t have a global customer base, he’s got millions of friends and business partners across the planet. If you don’t see the difference between those two things, you’re having a Kodak moment.
CB: What are unexpected ways that we’re going to use data? How will different media platforms allow us to use data in ways that will revolutionize the experience?
JG: In the near future certain companies are going to be able to track an individual consumer’s interaction with brands as they move across different media, across geography, and over time. This will enable the storyteller to customize the story, the way that we can speak candidly and intimately with a good friend.
So every brand storyteller will become like the Avon Lady; ringing their doorbell, being invited in with a smile, and selling your customer a variety of products, because you know her so well. Data collection, and better, more narrative-based questions with which to elicit data, will play a central role in the evolution of this experience.